“History is written by the victors,” said Winston Churchill. Or was it Walter Benjamin?
“What is history but a set of lies agreed upon?” asked Napoleon. Or maybe it was Voltaire. Or Ralph Waldo Emerson
The idea that recorded history may not be reliable isn’t new, and it’s poetic that even the origin of the idea is disputed. Regardless of who said it first, these adages do hold an element of truth. Historical narratives, propagated by history’s victors, tend to oversimplify historical events in order to paint a clear picture, complete with good guys and bad guys, victims and saviors. There in a neat little package, we are told, is history.
The problem with history, however, is that it only infrequently comes in neat little packages. More commonly, history is a complete mess. Not only is the line often blurred between good and bad guys, but causes and effects are often misrepresented or completely ignored in the interest of a telling a cohesive story.
Such are the problems with modern understandings of the American Civil War. The accepted account of the war is that the North, led by the angelic Abraham Lincoln, waged a holy crusade against the evil South in a final, all-out effort to end slavery. This account, which can not withstand serious scrutiny, has come under fire in recent years, but the popular revisionist telling is really no better. This story is that the South, fighting solely for the principles of liberty and self-government, heroically defended itself against northern aggression.
I admit that I have been swayed by both of these narratives at different points in my life. But the more I learned about this period of history the more I found neither of them to be intellectually satisfying, nor did I find either able withstand a review of the historical record. It turns out that the Civil War, the classic story of good guy versus bad guy, isn’t reducible to such simple categorizations.
Of course, some facts about the Civil War are not in question. At the time of the Civil War, slavery was still a feature of the South’s culture and economy, while much of the North had ended that vile institution. It is also true that the end of slavery was one of the primary results of the war.
But the end of slavery wasn’t the only result of the war. One of the most significant changes was the transformation of the country from a decentralized collection of states into the centralized system we live under now, and the beneficial nature of this change is considerably less obvious than that of slavery’s demise.
The founding generation’s vision of a decentralized republic ended with the Civil War, as the centralization of political power undid the Founder’s designs and set the stage for the erosion of Americans’ political liberties. Not only was the war itself a victory for centralization, it also laid the groundwork for all future arguments against it. Even today, anyone endeavoring to submit decentralization as a valid political principle is accused of advocating slavery and racism simply because the mainstream account of the war links those ideas with states’ rights.
The Civil War has thus provided the advocates of centralization a tidy way to discredit an entire political philosophy before it can even be discussed. But considering the long-term effects of centralization is not tantamount to sympathizing with slavery. It can’t even be equated with sympathizing with the Confederacy, which itself succumbed to the lure of centralization.
Not only were the results of the Civil War a mixture of good (the end of slavery) and bad (the centralization of power), the opinions, objectives and motivations of those involved were much more varied and complex than is typically admitted. Additionally, precious few of the major figures on either side of the conflict had many redeeming qualities.
But in spite of – or rather, because of – all the complexity of the period, the events surrounding the Civil War demand a coherent understanding, one that takes into account not only the positive aspects of the war, but the negative consequences as well. Unfortunately, much of the traditional and revisionist histories of the Civil War oversimplify many significant points and are flat wrong on others.
In several upcoming articles I will address some of this misrepresented and oversimplified history, and I will put a special focus on points that deserve consideration by those who favor political freedom. Americans who are bothered by the growth of unaccountable government need to understand the events in their history that have contributed to its rise.
The Civil War was without question one of the most important of those events.
Note: This article is part of a series on the Civil War. Click here to see all the articles in the series.